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30 August 2023

History offers Ukraine slender hope for a decisive victory

The wars between Finland and Soviet Russia in the 1940s hold lessons on how peace might be achieved today.

By Wolfgang Münchau

On a recent visit to the north-eastern regions of Finland, I had occasion to reflect on the Winter War of 1939 and 1940 and what it tells us about the situation in Ukraine today. Russia invaded Finland in late November 1939 to protect Leningrad (today’s St Petersburg), which at the time was only 20 miles away from the Finnish border. The Soviets had asked Finland to move the border some 20 miles west, and attacked after Finland refused. The war lasted just over three months. The Finnish troops were no match for the Red Army, but their guerrilla tactics were surprisingly effective and curtailed Russia’s advance. The Russians suffered heavy casualties.

The Winter War ended in March 1940 with the Moscow Peace Treaty. Finland ceded 9 per cent of its territory – the most important of which was the eastern part of Karelia, a region to the east of Helsinki that stretched almost all the way to Leningrad. The Soviets took Lake Ladoga and the tract of land from there to the Gulf of Finland, as well as a region in the north-east of the country. Most Finns who lived in those territories were repatriated to Finland.

[See also: Why the EU cannot admit Ukraine as a member]

A little over a year later, Nazi Germany and Finland together tried to recapture Karelia in what’s known as the Continuation War, a part of the Second World War. After the Continuation War ended in 1944, Finland ceded more territory: the province of Petsamo in north-eastern Lapland, which is now part of the Murmansk Oblast.

The usual warning that history does not repeat itself applies: I am only drawing limited parallels. The war between Finland and Russia was in two parts. It was only the second peace treaty, in 1944, that laid the ground for a long period of stability along the Finnish-Russian border.

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And it seems that the Ukraine war could end in a similar way, with Ukraine ceding some territory in exchange for a deal that would provide Ukraine’s security afterwards. This is exactly what Stian Jenssen, chief of staff to Nato’s general secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, has suggested: Ukraine would join Nato after a peace deal with Moscow. He was forced to make a grovelling apology later after protests from Ukraine. But, as always, it is the gaffe that tells us more than the retraction.

Jenssen is not alone. Robert Brieger, the current chair of the European Union Military Committee, warned in an interview with the German daily Die Welt of a war of attrition with no winners. He concluded that Russia could hold out for a very long time and that Ukraine is unlikely to regain all of the occupied territories. What this means is that insiders are now discussing scenarios and outcomes they were not discussing before.

Nato membership for Ukraine would have to be a part of any credible deal. An armistice or peace treaty would otherwise not hold for long. Russia would regroup, and attack again in a few years. The deal envisaged by Jenssen would be one in which Vladimir Putin got the bragging rights of having obtained territory in eastern Ukraine, plus an official recognition of Russia’s claim to Crimea, in exchange for Ukraine becoming part of Nato and the EU.

[See also: What realists get wrong about Ukraine’s counteroffensive]

I would add a further point. Western support for Ukraine is strong but not infinite. A poll on whether Germany should supply cruise missiles to Ukraine showed that 52 per cent of Germans are opposed, with only 36 per cent in favour. Electoral support for weapons deliveries to Ukraine has been weakening in both the US and Germany, two of Ukraine’s three largest suppliers of arms and financial assistance. The other is the UK.

Ukraine is probably about to discover an ugly truth about the EU. Continental Europeans, who are not well-versed in military affairs, are great in virtue-signalling, but not so great at the follow-up. The European public will support Team Ukraine only for as long it wins. There is a lack of maturity in the public debate on security in many Western countries.

Ukraine has made some progress in its counteroffensive, but has not so far achieved a big breakthrough. Once we reach November and the winter sets in, Ukraine’s campaign will be suspended for four to six months. Ukraine and the West underestimated the impact of Russia’s land mines, drones and air-defence superiority.

To many supporters of Ukraine this will come as a shock. The deal envisaged by Jenssen will clearly not satisfy those in the West who draped themselves in blue-and-yellow flags in the early days of the war, and who will accept nothing less than total victory, including the reconquest of Crimea. Ukraine’s supporters, especially in the media, have been lulling themselves into a false sense of security with predictions of Putin’s imminent demise. When Yevgeny Prigozhin launched his abortive coup, Western media treated this as a sign of Putin’s weakness. When the coup failed, it doubled down and said he was left vulnerable. Now Prigozhin is dead, we are hearing the same again. Western commentary on Russia is an exercise in wishful thinking. The problem with Putin is not that he’s weak but that he is dangerous.

One of the factors that favoured Russia in the 1939-40 war was the exceptionally cold winter in Karelia, where temperatures reached -40ºC. Russia’s enemies in the West have always underestimated the effect of the region’s climate.

My expectation is that we are either looking at a two-winter war that ends with a dirty deal, or a war of attrition that will end in exhaustion on one or both sides. Either way, Western political support for Ukraine may well exhaust itself first.

[See also: Casualties of the counteroffensive]

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con